CA Anti-Gang Bills Miss Central Truth About Kids & Gangs

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

Gangs were responsible for 70% of the shootings last year in Los Angeles, and local lawmakers are proposing numerous measures to address the gang crisis. One package of bills, recently endorsed by Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Sheriff Lee Baca, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, would make it more difficult for gang members to get firearms. Another, introduced by Compton Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, would create Gang Alternative Education Programs in selected inner-city areas.

While these measures have merit, one central truth is being ignored–the presence of fathers, including nonresident fathers, greatly reduces the likelihood that a teen will become involved in crime or gangs.

A study just released by Boston College finds that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of violence, crime, substance abuse and truancy decrease markedly. Most of the families in the study, which was published in the journal Child Development, are low-income African-American and Hispanic families. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, explains:

“Nonresident fathers in low-income, minority families appear to be an important protective factor for adolescents…Greater involvement from fathers may help adolescents develop self-control and self-competence, and may decrease the opportunities adolescents have to engage in problem behaviors.”

The study also found that when teens begin to slide towards delinquency, nonresident fathers increase their involvement in response. The researchers found such involvement to be effective–the impact of father involvement was the greatest on the kids who had previously been the most troubled.

The new study’s findings are consistent with a wealth of research on the impact of fathers. One study published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency concluded that fatherlessness is so predictive of juvenile crime that, as long as there was a father in the home, children of poor and well-to-do families had similar juvenile crime rates. A University of Chicago study of crime in the African-American areas of 171 cities found that fatherlessness was the strongest predictor of violent juvenile crime.

The link between fatherlessness and crime has long been axiomatic for law enforcement officials. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox says he’s examined hundreds of pre-sentencing reports detailing the family histories of convicted criminals, and found one common denominator:

“Uniformly, there was a parent, usually the father, missing from the home.”

The devastating impact of fatherlessness is clearly understood behind prison walls. In an interview of juvenile offenders at the California Youth Authority in Stockton, reporter Ramon McLeod quotes one 20 year-old gang member, who was incarcerated for trying to kill a gang rival, as saying, “[My father] was never around when I needed him…[my mom] did OK until I was 10–she could control me up to then. But then I went to the gangs, like my brothers…It might have mattered if he was around.”

McLeod writes:

“Teenage inmates in the room nodded. Most of them come from single-parent families, too…73 percent of the young men in California’s massive juvenile prison system grew up in single-parent and broken families.”

While some nonresident fathers voluntarily remove themselves from their children’s lives, there are many low-income African-American and Latino fathers who seek a greater role in their children’s lives and are thwarted by the family law system.

Most California child custody arrangements provide fathers only a few days a month to spend with their children, and fighting for shared parenting is expensive and difficult. Misguided custodial mothers frequently fail to honor visitation orders, and while California spends several hundred million dollars a year on child support enforcement, there is no system in place to help enforce visitation orders. In such cases, fathers must scrape together money for an attorney so they can go to court, and even then courts enforce visitation orders indifferently.

Moreover, many inner city noncustodial fathers owe child support to the state to repay the cost of the welfare their children’s mothers’ received. A study of California child support obligors conducted by the Urban Institute found that the system’s demands upon low-income men are often wildly unrealistic. This and the enforcement system’s abusive practices often make it hard for young, low-income men to function as fathers.

Lawmakers can’t turn a disinterested parent into a caring one, but they can do much to break down the barriers separating children from caring nonresident fathers. Tougher law enforcement measures and gang prevention programs have their place. However, the best way to keep teenagers out of gangs is to help them get the much-needed discipline, care and love that so many fathers are skilled at providing.

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